Advocates Push Again for Voting Rights in District

For Immediate Release:

January 21, 2010

Contact:Emily Yehle and Zack Hale

Roll Call

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) signaled Wednesday that lawmakers have made “headway” on a gun amendment that has stalled the D.C. House Voting Rights Act for months, but it’s still unclear whether voting rights advocates would accept a compromised provision in return for the bill’s passage.

The bill — which would give D.C. its first-ever voting Representative — stalled in the House in March, after pro-gun Members tried to attach an amendment that would strike down many of D.C.’s strict gun laws. Under pressure from the National Rifle Association, most Members have refused to consider an amendment-free bill.

In June, voting rights advocates put the bill on hold rather than accept an amendment they saw as harmful to the District. But at a press conference Wednesday, Norton said she hoped the bill would move to the House floor “within the coming weeks” and cited progress made in talks over the gun amendment.

“We’re very close to a bill we think we can carry to the floor,” she said.

In a subsequent e-mail, Norton emphasized her work and progress with bringing the bill to the floor but declined to comment further on what progress was being made with the gun amendment. She has also declined in the past to say whether she would support a form of the gun amendment.

A spokeswoman for Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who is a strong supporter of the bill, said that he “continues to work” toward finding a legislative solution.

Ideally, voting rights advocates want a clean bill but so far, they have been unsuccessful. Their best chance — to attach it to a must-pass appropriations bill — slipped away last month, when Democrats pushed through the last of the spending bills.

The bill’s supporters agree that the legislation needs to pass this year or risk oblivion. It has already passed the giant hurdle of the Senate, thanks to a provision that gives the Republican-leaning Utah a seat it narrowly lost in the 2000 Census. Utah is expected to get that seat in the 2010 Census, making the bill’s Utah provision moot in the next Congress, leaving Democrats with no bargaining chip to gain Republican support.

But getting a consensus on how to move the bill through the House has been difficult. Some supporters think a compromised gun amendment is the only way forward; others believe the amendment is too big a pill to swallow.

“I do think the city is divided on it,” said one senior aide familiar with the discussions. “I think that is one of the big challenges in moving forward on a compromise.”

In the meantime, voting rights advocates seem focused on a public relations campaign. Wednesday’s press conference heralded the mailing of more than 41,000 signatures to the White House imploring President Barack Obama to include supportive remarks about the voting rights act in his upcoming State of the Union address.

Since Obama became president, he hasn’t given any public support to the voting rights act (though he was a sponsor of the bill when he was in the Senate). But on Wednesday, Norton said it was time for Obama to “call out Congress.”

“It would be a shame to let such an occasion go by,” she said.

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